The Sundance Film Festival wrapped up Sunday. Predictably, it was a week of great movies. More surprising were the dozens of events that looked beyond traditional film. While people are likely to be talking about Sundance hits like "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" and "Who is Dayani Cristal?" in the coming months, the festival’s off-screen discussions were almost as memorable.
Sundance’s public programs were decidedly forward-looking -- launching conversations about how independent filmmaking might evolve in the digital era. The festival featured talks on everything from online distribution to tablet films to virtual characters -- the latter featuring the creator of Coachella’s Tupac Hologram. Web series producers talked about their online series at New Frontier while, in the storied Egyptian Theatre, iconic independent filmmakers Jane Campion and Richard Linklater discussed storytelling opportunities in broadcast and web TV.
Most exciting was the spirit of optimism that ran through these discussions. All too often "filmmaking in the digital era" talks can be fraught with tension -- driven both by techies, expecting to inherit the earth and barely concealing their glee, as well as filmmakers fearing to be left behind.
But by and large, Sundance’s panels focused on the possibilities of new technology. At New Frontier’s web series panel, Issa Rae talked about her web series "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl." Rae created the show while she was a struggling writer, self-distributing episodes online. A devoted fan base and millions of views later, Rae has sold a comedy to ABC with "Grey’s Anatomy" producer Shonda Rhimes.
Another panel featured folks from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, my home institution. Assistant Professor Sasha Costanza-Chock of MIT’s Center for Civic Media discussed how technology can enable community-based storytelling, helping people create their own narratives. He profiled SandyStoryline.com, a participatory web documentary about the Hurricane Sandy recovery. Sarah Wolozin, director of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, spoke about digital storytelling projects, while the Media Lab’s Dan Novy -- who joined MIT after a long career as a Hollywood visual effects supervisor -- showcased some of the MIT technologies under development relevant to filmmaking. Moar ntable was the Infinity by Nine -- a screen that wraps around a viewer to create a deeper feeling of immersion.
When I told people at Sundance I was from MIT, I was met with surprise, then curiosity. "What's MIT doing at a film festival?" was the most common question, and rightfully so. Storytelling isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about MIT, but the school has a long and often overlooked filmmaking tradition. Cinema vérité pioneer Ricky Leacock was on MIT’s faculty for over a decade. While here, he trained documentarians Robb Moss and Ross McElwee. Leacock’s Film & Video Section was one of several programs that merged to form the MIT Media Lab in 1985. Filmmaker Glorianna Davenport worked closely with Leacock, before founding the Media Lab’s Interactive Cinema division. Her 1989 project "Elastic Charles" let users create a documentary about Boston’s Charles River using an interactive, navigable computer interface.
MIT’s history of collaboration between artists and techies is by no means unique. These examples just scratch the surface of a long tradition of collaboration between scientists and filmmakers. As digital technologies transform film production, distribution and, perhaps, audience interaction, these types of partnerships may become increasingly important.
They were already visible at Sundance. Rap artist Yung Jake, whose app Augmented Real and website E.m-bed.de/d showed at New Frontier, works closely with a developer, Vince McKelvie, to create his digital work. It’s a true collaboration: Yung Jake provides a creative vision while McKelvie has the technical chops to bring the projects to life.
The story of filmmaking in the digital era is one of collaboration. In many ways, it’s not so different from what’s come before. Technologies may change, but creative partnerships remain equally important. Sundance’s forward-looking programming sheds a light on the role of the festival in the digital era. It’s not only a market, but increasingly important as a meet-and-greet -- a place where people can build the creative partnerships that will create the tomorrow’s films. Whether we watch them on the big screen, a tablet, or the Media Lab’s Imagine by Nine remains to be seen.
Ultimately, it all comes back to the movies. Technology -- no matter how flashy -- needs storytellers. It takes one look at the Sundance’s stellar lineup of films to realize that technical delivery platforms are only as strong as the content they showcase.
Katie Edgerton is a research assistant at the MIT Open Documentary Lab, and a graduate student in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program.